The Cornish Coast, three months earlier . . . It was not one of her better days. Brynn Caldwell dove beneath the warm surf, trying to drown her simmering anger in the deep tidal pool. Her frustration with her oldest brother Grayson had reached the limits of her endurance.
With a muttered oath, she surfaced and rolled onto her back, willing herself to calm. This was not the first time she had futilely argued with Gray and sought refuge in the secluded cove below their house. The inlet was flanked on two sides by jagged boulders and behind by a low cliff that shielded the natural rock pool from prying eyes. She came here whenever she could, or whenever she felt a need for peace, as now.
Here she could be free of the confining restrictions she imposed on herself. Here she could forget the troubles that constantly worried her: how to make ends meet for her impoverished family, how to protect her youngest brother, Theodore, from Gray’s dangerous notions of upbringing.
The afternoon July sun was warm on her face as Brynn floated, the salty seawater soothing her frayed temper. Yet she had never felt so helpless. Gray intended to take Theo out on a midnight smuggling excursion tonight, and despite arguing herself hoarse, she could do nothing to stop him.
“Devil take him!” she murmured, an imprecation she used frequently of late toward her oldest brother. Grayson was very dear to her, but dragging a mere child into their illicit activities was utterly criminal.
It galled her to feel so powerless. She had raised Theo from a baby—ever since their mother had died in childbirth twelve years before—and she was desperate to spare him the danger that had ensnared her four other brothers and herself as well.
Smuggling was a way of life on the Cornish coast. Having grown up here, she accepted the illegal means to which the local folk resorted simply to survive, trafficking goods such as brandy and silk past government revenuers to avoid crushing taxes.
But Free Trading was so very perilous. Her father had perished in a storm several years ago while trying to elude a revenue cutter. And so had numerous other men of the district, leaving behind widows and young children with no means of support.
And now Grayson meant to involve Theo in an upcoming brandy-smuggling foray so he could “learn to pull his weight” and help relieve the oppressive debts their father had amassed. It was enough to make Brynn want to do violence.
She made herself float awhile longer, then swam some more, trying to burn off her frustration—to no avail. She was physically spent by the time she turned toward shore, but her feelings of guilt and anger and helplessness were just as strong as she clambered onto the ledge of the rocky pool.
For a moment she stood dripping wet in her shift, wringing out her long hair. The sea breeze would dry it quickly, for this stretch of Cornish coast boasted one of the warmest climes in England.
When she started to reach for the towel she had left lying on the ground, however, she realized it was gone. Her gaze lifted, searching, then fell upon the intruder in her private sanctuary. Brynn froze, her heart thudding in her chest.
He was leaning casually against a boulder, watching her from the afternoon shadows. He was dressed informally as well in breeches and gleaming topboots and a white cambric shirt with no cravat. Yet there was nothing casual in his look as his measuring gaze slowly raked her.
Alarmed, she took a backward step. How had he found his way to the rocky stretch of beach below the cliff? Had he discovered the cave below the house with its secret tunnel? He didn’t look like a revenuer, but government men sometimes roamed these shores, searching for contraband.
“Who are you?” she demanded in a breathless voice. “How did you get here?”
“I climbed down,” he replied, gesturing with his head at the rocks above him.
“You didn’t answer my first question.”
He was tall and lithely built, she noted, with dark, curling hair worn a trifle longer than fashionable. When he stepped out of the shadows, her gaze riveted on his face. His lean, aristocratic features were strikingly handsome, barely saved from arrogance by a sensual mouth. His heavily lashed eyes were a startling hue, the deep blue of the ocean on a brilliant summer day, and they held her transfixed.
“I’m Wycliff,” he said simply, as if she should be duly impressed.
She was, in truth. She recognized the name of the rich and powerful Earl of Wycliff. By reputation, he was a notorious rake and a leader of the infamous Hellfire League, an exclusive club of wicked noblemen dedicated to pleasure and debauchery. Brynn was suddenly keenly aware of a different kind of danger. Simply being alone with him could taint her reputation.
“That does not explain what you are doing here,” she replied tartly.
“I am visiting a friend.”
“Do you realize you are trespassing?”
His mouth curved in a charming half smile. “I couldn’t resist the pleasure of watching a sea nymph cavort in her kingdom. I wasn’t even certain you were real.”
He held out her towel to her, but Brynn warily backed up another step, every instinct she possessed warning her to flee. She wanted to retreat farther, yet with the pool directly behind her, there was nowhere to go but into the water.
“You needn’t fear me,” he remarked soothingly. “I’m not in the habit of ravishing beautiful women, no matter how scantily clad.”
“That is not what I hear—” Brynn began, then looked down at herself and nearly gasped. The shift she wore had turned transparent, showing her breasts with their puckered rosy nipples and the thatch of auburn hair at the vee of her thighs. Flustered, she crossed to him and snatched the towel from his grasp, then wrapped it around her body, shielding her charms from his interested gaze.
“I won’t assault you. I am a gentleman, after all.”
“Are you?” she asked skeptically. “A gentleman would go away at once and allow me to dress in private.”
A lazy smile filled his blue eyes, but he made no move to accommodate her wishes. Annoyed by his arrogance, Brynn brushed past him and stalked barefooted across the shingle toward the rock where she had left her gown and slippers. She had barely taken four steps, however, when a stinging pain in her left sole made her draw a sharp breath. Halting abruptly, she stood on one leg, cursing her clumsiness. She had cut the pad of her foot on a shell or rock.
“You’re bleeding,” a concerned voice said be- hind her.
“I am fine.”
When she tried to hobble toward her clothing, though, she suddenly felt herself being swept up in a pair of strong arms.
Brynn gasped in shock.
“How dare you . . . Put me down!” she demanded, and tried to break free, but her struggles were in vain. Not only was Wycliff tall and lithe but surprisingly muscular as well—and altogether too domineering for her taste, both in manner and tone of voice.
“Be still,” he ordered. “I only want to see to your wound.”
He carried her as if she weighed no more than thistledown and lifted her up onto a boulder so that she sat facing him, her knees level with his broad chest.
Brynn glared repressingly at him, but he only flashed her a wicked smile. When his gaze flickered over her bosom, she realized that her towel had come loose and clutched at it wildly, covering her indecently exposed breasts. There was nothing she could do, however, to hide her legs, which were bare to the knees.
At last he turned his attention to her left foot. He cradled it gently in his elegant hands, turning it slightly to inspect the bloody cut on the underside. His touch was careful as he brushed away sand and probed the wound with his thumb.
“It doesn’t appear to be too deep,” he murmured.
“I told you, my lord, I am perfectly all right. And I don’t appreciate you accosting me.”
Instead of answering, Lord Wycliff began pulling the hem of his shirt from the waistband of his breeches.
Brynn’s eyes widened in alarm. “What are you doing?”
“Tearing a strip off my shirt to bind your wound. I haven’t any bandages with me at present, or even a handkerchief.”
It was a costly shirt, made of the finest cambric, she noted, the price of which would have fed a commoner’s family for weeks. But the Earl of Wycliff was reportedly wealthy enough to destroy a dozen such garments without thinking twice.
“You will ruin your shirt,” Brynn protested weakly.
That charming half smile flashed again. “But my sacrifice is for a good cause.”
He ripped the fabric at the bottom and tore off part of the hem, then began to bandage her foot.
Biting her lip, Brynn stared down at his dark head as he bent over her. His nearness was affecting her strangely, making her senses swim and her heartbeat quicken ridiculously. His thick, curling hair was deepest brown, the rich color of dark chocolate, and she could smell his clean masculine scent over the pungent brine from the sea.
He seemed intimately aware of her as well, for his touch was lingering and provocative as he bound her foot. After he tied a neat knot over her arch, he went still. When he looked up suddenly, his sapphire eyes had darkened.
Brynn froze. Sweet heaven. She had seen that look before in men’s eyes. Want, need, primitive male lust. She was sitting there, wet and bedraggled as a drowned cat, and yet this handsome stranger was looking at her as if she was the most bewitching woman he had ever encountered.
It was the Gypsy’s curse again, Brynn thought with a sinking heart. The powerful Romany spell that had made men go wild for the females in her family for nearly two hundred years. And she was alone with this wicked lord, wearing scarcely a stitch of clothing.
She shivered, despite the warmth of the sun beating down on her wet head.
“Are you cold?” he asked, his voice suddenly husky.
“No . . . I told you I am quite all right. Or I would be if you would go away and leave me in peace.”
“It would hardly be chivalrous of me to leave you in this condition. You’re injured.”
“I will manage well enough.”
“You can’t mean to walk home, siren. Where do you live? I’ll carry you.”
Brynn hesitated. She couldn’t possibly allow him to carry her. She couldn’t be seen alone with a nobleman of his notorious ilk, especially while in this state of undress. Even if she were to don her gown—which was one of her oldest— appearing in pub- lic in his arms was sure to cause a scandal. Simply divulging her identity to him would be courting trouble.
If he would just leave her, she could return home through the cave, which was connected by a narrow passageway to her family home on the cliff top.
Pretending regret, she lowered her gaze to conceal the lie in her eyes. She would do better to encourage him to believe her a servant. Indeed, she suspected he already thought her one, for no true lady would go swimming in her shift. “My master would not like it if a strange man were to accompany me home.”
“You have a protector?”
By that he was asking if she were some man’s mistress, she realized.
“Yes, my lord.” She didn’t tell him that her “protector” was her older brother, Sir Grayson Caldwell.
“I should have known.” His voice was low and sensual. “A woman as lovely as you would of course be taken.”
“Let me go . . . please.” She would have climbed down from the boulder where she was perched, but he stood directly in front of her, too near for comfort.
“You haven’t even told me your name.”
“It’s—” Elizabeth, she started to say, which truthfully was her middle name. But few servants owned such an elegant appellation. “My name is Beth.”
His heavy eyebrows drew together as he studied her. “Somehow that doesn’t fit. It doesn’t do justice to a sea nymph. I shall call you Aphrodite instead. That’s what I first thought when I saw you rising from the foam.”
“I would rather you call me nothing at all and say farewell.”
His half-lidded gaze was amused as he measured her. “My, what a little firebrand you are. Your protector must have his hands full dealing with you.”
“That is hardly your concern, my lord.”
“No, regrettably it isn’t.” His murmur was husky and vibrant. Seductive. It stroked her nerve endings like velvet.
“Will you release me?” she responded much too breathlessly.
“Yes. On one condition.”
“Condition?” Brynn eyed him warily, trying to summon her defenses. After the frustrations of her day, she was in no mood to be trifled with or eager to become the plaything of a rake.
“You must pay a forfeit.” His hand lifted to her face, and with one finger he brushed her mouth lightly. “A simple kiss. Nothing more.”
He wouldn’t be satisfied with one kiss, Brynn feared. Even a rake as experienced and jaded as the Earl of Wycliff would not be able to resist the damnable Gypsy’s curse. To her everlasting dismay, she possessed unique feminine powers. An irresistible allure she had inherited from her legendary ancestor.
Yet she knew she wouldn’t be rid of him unless she agreed.
“If I kiss you, then you promise to go?”
“If you insist.”
“You give me your word of honor?”
His eyes touched her intimately, and she couldn’t look away. She only hoped she could believe him.
“Very well,” she said with grave reluctance. “One kiss.”
Her throat dry, Brynn braced herself as he put his hands at her waist to lift her down from her rock. But instead of simply setting her on the ground, he held her against him. Her breath caught in her throat as he deliberately let her slide down the full length of his body.
His seductive smile was unapologetic. “If I am allowed only one kiss, I must make it good.” Still keeping her pressed to him, he bent his head.
His lips were warm, surprisingly soft—and more tempting than she could have imagined. She tried to hold herself stiffly, but found it impossible with the caress of his alluring mouth.<
Excerpted from Desire by Nicole Jordan Copyright © 2001 by Nicole Jordan. Excerpted by permission.
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